Many will be familiar with the term the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’, although fewer know the detail of it’s the origins, which relate to a dungeon 20 feet square in Fort William, Calcutta, where as many as 146 English prisoners were confined overnight following the capture of the city by the Nawab of Bengal in 1756. Only 23 were still alive the next morning.
The reason for our visit to Kolkata was that last year a group of Choice Support’s managers decided to raise funds for the support and care of Guria, a young disabled Bengali girl found abandoned on the streets of Kolkata. So, my partner Tracy and I decided to take a short break in Kolkata as I was keen to meet Guria and see first-hand the work of Shuktara, the charity that provides Guria’s care.
Literally hundreds of children, disabled and non-disabled, are abandoned every year because their families can no longer cope. Other children need help because they are fleeing abuse. The stories of how and where some of the children were found and reached the care of Shuktara are too heart rending for me to repeat here. The cost of Guria’s care is approximately £2,500 per year. Care and support in the UK for someone with a similar level of disability would cost more than £80,000 per year. So, far we’ve raised money through a sponsored skydive and taking part in the 2016 Milton Keynes Dragon Boat race. (Any ideas for fundraising or offers to organise an event greatly appreciated!!).
I was struck how, in spite of many and massive differences between the UK and India, some things are the same the world over.
The first and most obvious sameness was that Guria’s needs and wants as a human being and disabled child are exactly the same as any child anywhere in the world. She is a lively, happy, cheeky child with an engaging smile who, like all children, loves and responds to human warmth and kindness. Guria appears to have cerebral palsy and some limb deformity that, I believe, would benefit from surgical intervention. She cannot walk and wears splints some of the time, nor does she speak although she is a good communicator. I believe that Guria’s lack of verbal communication requires specialist investigation. I’m not convinced that she has a learning disability. Guria lives with seven other disabled girls in a house that has been purchased by Shuktara. The girls' ages range from about 10 to 18, although as they were found abandoned no one knows exactly how old they are. Guria is about eleven or twelve.
In spite of the fact that we were total strangers all of the children seemed pleased to see us. We visited the girls' home on three occassions, each visit lasting approximately three hours, and most of the girls engaged with us for most of the time. They seemed to particularly enjoy a nail painting session initiated by Tracy. I’ve two daughters, both now adults, and I’d managed to see them both grow up without ever varnishing nails so the experience was a first for me. The girls have a range of disabilities. One is deaf, while another has cerebral palsy but appeared to be of average or above average intelligence (understanding Hindi, Bengali and English). One of the younger and most recent residents is thought to be autistic. One girl can present quite challenging behaviours. I also saw a couple of learning disability associated syndromes that I’ve not come across in the UK since the 1970s.
Whilst in Kolkata Tracy and I visited the two homes (girls and boys) and a work project run by Shuktara. We also visited a project for women who have been victims of trafficking, slavery, rape and domestic violence (but that’s another story). The physical standards in the homes were basic and if they had been subject to a UK Care Quality Commission inspection they would undoubtedly have faced immediate closure. However, this was India not England and the children have a roof over their heads, they are safe and most importantly they are loved. The Shuktara homes are immeasurably better than the alternatives: a life on the streets or state care.
The second sameness was an apparent lack of will to resolve poverty. The abject poverty and exploitation experienced by millions of Indian families living in slums, shanty towns adjacent to rubbish tips or in makeshift shelters on the streets vastly exceeds the levels of poverty experienced by most in the UK.
I was advised while in Kolkata that the abject poverty experienced by so many was not an insoluble problem, but that there was a lack of will on the part of the government to address the issue. Partly because to maintain their lifestyles the rich need the poor. In many ways there are parallels here with the UK, where poverty levels have been rising since 2010. , in 2014 nearly 1 million people in the UK had received three days of emergency food supplies in the past 12 months. If you don’t believe how many people in the UK are now dependent on food banks do an Internet search ... you will be shocked. Furthermore, according to Unicef, there are 14 developed countries with lower rates of child poverty than the UK. Just like India, poverty in the UK could be tackled if there was a will to do so.
Returning to the work of Shuktara, in more than 40 years of working with disabled people I have never been so impressed with the levels of dedication and commitment I witnessed. Shuktara manage to achieve so much with so little and are literally saving children’s lives.
Since returning Tracy and I have not stopped talking about our experience and thinking about the children. I know managers at Choice Support will redouble their fundraising efforts for Shuktara, and Tracy and I are now both personally committed to do all that we can to help.
Steven Rose, Chief Executive